Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia Race to the MVP Ladder: Kawhi Leonard shining in role as Spurs' go-to guy

San Antonio forward has become perhaps best two-way player in NBA today

For years, the conventional wisdom was that Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich would be a package deal in San Antonio.

When Duncan decided to walk away from his Hall of Fame playing career, Popovich would do the same from his Hall of Fame coaching career.

But since when does Pop do conventional?

And when the heir apparent to Duncan is a player as dynamic as Kawhi Leonard, there’s no sense in exiting the premises if you’re Popovich.

In the wake of Duncan’s retirement, Leonard has officially assumed the role of the face of the franchise, complete with the reluctant star syndrome that defined Duncan’s two decades as the Spurs’ leader and figurehead.

His apprenticeship began a while ago, perhaps as early as the Spurs’ 2014 championship season, where Leonard was named Finals MVP after his defensive work on LeBron James.

The two-time and reigning Kia Defensive Player of the Year shoved his way into the mix here on the KIA Race to the MVP Ladder last season. And now, in his first season without Duncan in the mix, he’s taken on the added weight of being the Spurs’ true center of attention. In the eyes of many, he has become the best two-way talent in the NBA today.

Leonard is averaging career highs in minutes (33.2), points (24.0) and field goal attempts (16.6) while also shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range for the second straight season. And he has no peer as a lock-down, individual defender.

Still, Popovich insists that things haven’t changed much for Leonard in Duncan’s absence, his responsibilities aren’t really any greater than they already were.

“It’s really the same for him,” Popovich said. “He has to score for us. He’s a great defender, he plays both ends of the floor, so none of that has really changed. He’s just more aggressive offensively and kind of added to his game every year. This year is more of an experience on the post. Starting to use him down there a little more, getting him used to seeing more double-teams. That’s probably new for him. I guess that’s the biggest difference in his game is the post play, everything else is pretty much the same. He has to be a two-way player and he does that pretty well.”

Arguably as well as any player in the game.

Now, to this week’s rankings …

1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

(Last week: No. 1)

The Rockets have won six in a row and 17 of their last 19 games behind the magical work Harden is putting in as the maestro of Mike D’Antoni’s system. He was spectacular in Thursday’s narrow escape over Russell Westbrook and the Thunder (33.2 points, 12.0 assists, 10.4 rebounds, 1.8 steals in his last five games).

2. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

(Last week: No. 2)

No one goes harder than Westbrook, “a problem” as James Harden described him after their Thursday night duel in Houston. Westbrook drilled eight 3-pointers and finished with 49 points, eight rebounds, five assists and two steals in rallying his crew from an 18-point deficit (30.0 points, 9.4 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 2.2 steals in his last five games).

3. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

(Last week: No. 4)

Durant’s overall skill set has been on full display this season. He does whatever the Warriors need him to on a nightly basis, on both ends of the floor, and is the biggest star in the ensemble cast in Oakland (25.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 2.0 blocks in his last five games).

4. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

(Last week: No. 3)

LeBron’s MVP case goes above and beyond his numbers, which are routinely outstanding, in a given season. It’s about his impact on the culture of a franchise. And no player in the league registers a greater impact than he does for the Cavaliers. (28.0 points, 8.3 assists, 7.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals in his last five games).

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

(Last week: No. 8)

The Greek Freak has added the buzzer beater to his growing arsenal, as if he wasn’t a colossal matchup nightmare already. There is no doubt that he’s establishing himself as the best all-around player in the Eastern Conference not named James (27.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 2.4 blocks, 1.4 steals in his last five games).

6. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls

(Last week: Not ranked)

Butler’s having a great 2017, having dropped 52 with 12 rebounds and six assists in Monday’s win over Charlotte, joining Michael Jordan as the only players in Bulls history with multiple 50-point games. He followed that up with a monster fourth quarter in Wednesday’s win in Cleveland (32.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 2.4 steals in his last five games).

7. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics

(Last week: Not ranked)

Thomas roasted the Miami Heat for 52 points, 29 in the fourth quarter, to finish off 2016. His follow up — 29 points and 15 assists in Tuesday’s win over Utah — was just as impressive when you consider that he didn’t register a single assists ons his 52-point night (32.0 points, 7.0 assists, 2.6 rebounds).

8. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

(Last week: No. 6)

Steph’s season of adjustment has been interesting, to say the least. But he finally appears comfortable with his new role (see his work in Wednesday’s win over Portland) and is being much more aggressive than he was earlier this season (22.8 points, 5.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 1.0 steals in his last five games).

9. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

(Last week: No. 5)

A bout with gastroenteritis knocked Leonard down after Christmas, he missed the last two games of 2016. But he’s slowly but surely picking up his pace to start 2017. He was at his efficient best in blowout wins over Toronto on Tuesday and at Denver Thursday night. (20.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.7 blocks, 1.0 steals in his last five games).

10. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

(Last week: No. 7)

Raptors fans argue that Kyle Lowry is every bit as worthy of a top-10 spot on this list as his All-Star backcourtmate. And Lowry’s heroics in Thursday’s win over Utah drove that point home. But DeRozan’s consistency cannot and should not be taken for granted (26.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.2 steals in his last five games).

Next five (listed alphabetically): DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings; Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans; Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies; Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors; Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets

Next up?

An inside look from a Western Conference advance scout at Julius Randle:

“He’s really somethings an enigma to me. There are nights when he puts it all together and he’s impossible to stop because he can work off the dribble and can overwhelm smaller guys or go by bigger guys. He’s got all of the physical tools you want — the size, athleticism and raw power everybody is looking for in a young power forward. I just wish he was more relentless, more of a … for lack of a better way of saying it, I just wish he was more of a pit bull out there every night. If you could get him to play at his best on a more consistent basis, I think he could be a real franchise-type guy. But right now, I think there are still some question marks with him. How much does he love the process, the work? Does he want to be just good or does he want to be great? It’s a question all young guys have to answer with their actions and not words.”

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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